An orange van sits on a beach, with dunes behind it and greenery in front.

How Life as a Digital Nomad Set Me Up for a Happier 2021

by Katie Joy Blanksma

For the past eight months, I’ve called a cargo van home. Trendy, I know. The dream of getting away from stuff and hitting the open road isn’t new — especially in the wake of stay-at-home orders. But for my partner and I, it was a dream two years in the making to convert an empty 10x6 metal box into a bedroom that’s also a kitchen which doubles as an office complete with the deity of the digital nomad lifestyle: Almighty Wifi. For the uninitiated, digital nomads are folks who have chosen a location-independent, technology-enabled life in order to pursue their day dream without giving up their day job. Starting van life when public showers were decidedly less available has taught me the value of making space for myself even when there really, truly, physically isn’t any. 

Here’s how the lessons of 2020, with all its missed family gatherings and shower-free weeks, are shaping a happier 2021 and more resilient me in my life as a newbie nomad. 

Live Your Priorities

Which means you first need to know your priorities — and the priorities of the people you share space with. Your priorities don’t need to align with theirs all of the time but you do need to be honest and vocal about what matters to you in that moment and in the grand scheme of, in our case, van life. The open road can make life feel rich with possibility, but going with someone else’s flow isn’t a roadmap to happiness. It’s a breakdown waiting to happen. So if your ideal morning looks like coffee, podcasts and no spoken words before 9am and theirs is a sunrise trail run followed by a verbal brain dump of everything on their to-do list, now is a really good time to clear up those expectations and make space for each other. 

Value Organization

My housekeeping skills have never been more relevant than now. And I have stopped apologizing for being good at organizing or, as some say, being particular. You bet I am. Call me a millennial, but I have always had a space-conscious penchant for color coding my closet and editing my home down to the bare, aesthetically pleasing essentials. Our tiny home is minimalist living to the max, sans closet, and it only works if the upkeep is constant and shared — from filling the fresh water tank every few days to arranging the pot, pan and plates just-so so that they 1) all fit and 2) don’t shatter when van life revs into van mode. 

Get into a Groove

But don’t get too attached. Lists. Rituals. Habits. I love them all because they create a sense of day-to-day structure in my life, even though there is no such thing as normal when home base keeps moving. I learned quickly that little luxuries like skincare can be as grounding as yoga and more gratifying than brunch (remember brunch?). Carve out time for your routines. Be intentional about enjoying them. And be OK letting it all go at a moment's notice because warm water for washing your face isn’t always an option. 

Be Open & Flexible

Like ideal face-washing conditions, plans change. Often and quickly. Adaptable humans are happy humans. If a little bit of rain threatens your parade it’s time to embrace the joy of puddle jumping. Bad puns aside, rolling with the weather and shifting to a mindset of fluidity and flexibility is key to optimizing happiness as it happens, not as you planned it. Even if you spent 2020 living under an actual rock, this is a game-changing lesson to open up your 2021.   

Stay (Dis)connected

Freedom is the thing that motivates most working nomads, yet the reality is that the technology that drives a nomadic lifestyle can also be its ball and chain. Small workspaces in tiny homes mean work is never far away. One of the most essential lessons nomadic life has taught me is to stop feeling guilty about logging off and being unavailable. When the work grind goes from 9-to-5 to 24/7, stress replaces freedom — and I just don’t have room for that in this wonderfully small life. 

Practice Gratefulness

Remember those lists and habits I love so much? Lately I’ve noticed they tend to reflect what I want for future me. How much writing I need to get done by the end of the day. How many squats I need to do to get the butt I’ve always wanted by summer. How many miles I need to drive to see that next epic sunrise. As I write this — from inside a pool, laptop inches from the edge, iced coffee within reach — I’m aware that I live an incredibly privileged life, at least for now. For every list you make to power life on your terms, write another list of gratitudes to remind you of how far you’ve come from 2020 to in this moment.

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Katie Joy Blanksma